Across the desert Southwest there are myriad rock art masterpieces etched into sandstone cliffs and walls by ancient civilizations, panels that tell stories that are not always easily understood but are dazzling to behold.
One found in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and known as the "Descending Sheep Panel" displays what has been interpreted as a hunting scene. Carved into the layer of "desert varnish" that coats the sandstone wall is a line of sheep moving right to left, and a group of hunters farther off to the left and some to the right.
The panel, thought to be at least 3,000 years old, was so intriguing to a North Carolina man on a guided fishing trip to the NRA last June that he carved his name, "TRENT," into the panel, according to a Park Service report.
Trenton Gainey's timing, let alone his actions, couldn't have been worse. According to Park Service officials, a concessions worker came upon the vandalized panel and reported it to a park interpretive ranger who had visited the panel earlier that same day and taken a photograph of it.
The ranger also had noticed a guided fishing trip on the beach near the panel. This information "was passed on to a law enforcement ranger working at Lee’s Ferry, who found the fishing guide at the boat ramp and asked if he had anyone on his trip by the name of 'Trent.'”
After the guide pointed out his passengers, the ranger asked for "Trent." Trenton Gainey, of Kure Beach, N.C., responded and admitted to scratching his name into the rock, said the NRA's acting chief ranger, Kevin Cochary.
According to the chief ranger's report, Mr. Gainey told the law enforcement ranger he carved his name into the panel "because he thought it would be “cool.”
It wasn't cool, but it did turn out to be expensive.
Back in December the North Carolina man entered a guilty plea to a felony violation of the Archaeological Resource Protection Act in federal magistrate’s court and agreed to pay $10,000 in restitution to repair the damage caused to the panel, according to Chief Ranger Cochary. Because the charge is a felony, he will have to return to Phoenix in mid-March for sentencing before a U.S. District Court judge.
“We were fortunate in that we had some interpretive rangers working in the area. They had been to the site before and had taken some pictures and saw the boat in the area," the chief ranger said the other day. "The chances of getting before and after photos within the same day are almost impossible."
Whether the federal judge will accept the man's guilty plea and agreement to make $10,000 in restitution remains to be seen, Chief Ranger Cochary said.
“Actual penalties for it could include jail time and a fine, but the U.S. Attorney’s office negotiated this with the thought the park would get some money back and that way they could do the repairs, as best they can," he said. "This kind of thing, it’s irreplaceable, we can’t make it perfect the way it was before.”
Indeed, the accompanying photos show that while the conservator, Dr. Johannes Loubser, was able to hide most of the damage, he couldn't make it vanish.
"The 'reintegration' process can be difficult. It requires being able to camouflage by color matching the background (in this case natural patina) using combinations of acrylic paint," explained Thann Baker, the NRA's archeologist. "It begins as trial and error until a satisfactory color or combination of colors is achieved. From what I understand, the process of camouflaging as the primary objective - rather than exact matching - is intended to confuse the eye and trick the brain into not seeing the impacted area. ... It's certainly not perfect and never completely 'restores' the panel, but does lessen the visual impact and hopefully prevents further acts of vandalism. Studies have statistically shown that unchecked graffiti will essentially attract and foster the propagation of additional graffiti.
"Ultimately, the imperfections of graffiti reintegration further illustrate the sensitivity of rock art to acts of vandalism. This rock art panel will never be same," he added. "The reintegration will fade over the years, requiring periodic reapplication. Furthermore, the extent to which the NPS has 'restored' the panel will never address the effects to those who ascribe traditional religious or cultural importance to that location. Tribal members speak in terms of an imbalance that now exists at the site as a result of the vandalism. That sense of imbalance will remain forever."
Among the tribes that were affronted by the vandalism are the Hopi, Navajo, Kaibab Paiute, and Zuni, said Chief Ranger Cochary.
“I do know that several of the tribes in the area have responded and expressed how significant this is as an act of vandalism against their culture," he said. “They all expressed a great deal of concern that something as important to them as a cultural and spiritual standpoint has been desecrated.”